Still a hardbody, now with some serious muscle.
by Bengt Halvorson
You might not remember Nissan trucks of the past. Why? Simply put, because they just haven’t been very exciting.
For nearly four decades, Nissan has sold pickups in the U.S., first as the Datsun “truck,” then as the Nissan “truck,” and most recently as the Nissan Hardbody. Those pickups of the past were competent, reliable workhorses but had very little in the way of bold styling or sportiness.
The new Frontier, and especially the SC, is an about face. Nissan now has one of the most style-conscious pickups on the market, and the supercharged SC model is marketed to young, muscle-car enthusiasts looking for that all-important rugged lifestyle statement along with good performance.
More torque, and more intake noise
With the competition upping the horsepower ante, Nissan found a way to boost the power of its venerable cast-iron-block 3.3-liter V-6 without a costly engine redesign. Thinking a little out of the box, Nissan engineers decided to go with a solution that had already been used successfully in the aftermarket: they added a supercharger. The Eaton rotor-type supercharger is mounted neatly over the intake manifold, using the existing crank pulley (widened for the task). To compensate for the addition of the supercharger, larger (by 80 percent) fuel injectors and a stronger fuel pump help make sure there’s enough extra fuel for the extra air.
The effect of the supercharger is, quite simply, 40 extra horsepower for the right foot and a lot of extra intake noise. The nice thing about using a supercharger rather than a turbocharger is that the boost is instantaneous, and it’s the kind of power that a truck can really use. If it weren’t for the whine of the blower, it would be convincing as a naturally aspirated larger displacement six or small V-8. The supercharger adds 31 lb-ft more torque (46 lb-ft more for automatic-transmission equipped trucks), compared to the naturally aspirated 3.3-liter, and it’s available at the same 2800-rpm peak.
While there’s no doubting that more power is better, it’s not at all unobtrusive. The SC has about the loudest supercharger/intake noise I've heard in a recent vehicle. To put it bluntly, the supercharger sounds a bit like a vacuum cleaner when taxed, taking over and droning out the engine’s natural induction sounds and exhaust note at higher revs, making it sound a bit wheezy. At idle, the engine is as quiet as the naturally aspirated engine, but just above idle, the airy hum of the supercharger takes over.
The supercharger helps perk up the engine’s torque curve exactly where it needs it. While the regular 3.3-liter is strong in midrange revs and lacks the all-important low-rpm torque important for hauling, the supercharger helps the engine bulk up at low revs and adds a bit more energy at the top end, flattening out the engine's torque curve. Unlike a turbocharger, the power is immediate and not as dramatic but usable when it counts.
Aside from the airy hum of the supercharger, under full throttle, during shifts, there's a very loud pressure release sound. A little disconcerting at first, it’s only the mark of the supercharger letting out its extra pressure through its bypass valve, controlled by a solenoid and the engine computer.
Sports-car styling - not dynamics
Piloting the Desert Runner is a very low-effort experience. The shift action of the five-speed manual transmission is straightforward, smooth and precise, with throws that aren’t too long. Clutch action and take-up is easy and progressive, and the steering is light (but a little too light).
Dynamically, the added power is enough for quick stoplight takeoffs, giving many sport coupes a run for the money. Just don’t count on the Frontier SC to take the place of a sports car. The steering (a durable old recirculating-ball design) doesn't center itself well in tight corners, especially while getting on the power, and it’s overboosted and less than confidence-inspiring. Brakes are good but not great (more limited by the tires than anything, it seemed), though pedal feel is good and the four-wheel anti-lock braking aids stability. The Frontier feels very trucky.
In the wet, the tail end tends to want to get loose whenever you're cornering on broken pavement, probably an inevitable result of the tight leaf springs in back. Often even when we were off the throttle, the back end would hop and screech a bit on tight corners over rough surfaces. Fair road-holding and a loose tail end tells us that the SC would be a handful on a snowy highway. The torque of the supercharged engine can make it easy - and fun - to get the rear wheels loose in the dry, too, though most of the time the standard limited-slip helps make sure most of the power gets to the pavement.
The cabin is roomy in the front, although the seats are unexpectedly low. It seems that most drivers, and especially those shorter drivers, might want more seat height to see over the steering wheel. Otherwise, the interior feels wider than that of other compact pickups. Odd jumpseats fold down from the sides in back, apparently for very small children. We can’t imagine that the seats would provide much protection to occupants in a collision.
“Modern Industrial”: Love it or hate it boldness
Nissan termed its latest reskin of the Frontier (for 2001) "modern industrial," but the bulbous, plasticky cladding, combined with rivets and flared fenders have unofficially earned the reference of "Tonka-truck look." It’s definitely more edgy than its blander predecessor, but the side cladding gives the truck an overblown, toylike appearance.
While the exterior design might be a bit too bold for some, the redesigned interior is an ideal mix of tasteful and functional. The new steering wheel looks and feels more substantial, with new gauges and revised switchgear borrowed from the Xterra. The matte-silver-colored plastic trim inside is actually quite attractive, and it lightens up the interior just enough. Large rotary knobs for the climate control are easy to navigate by touch, and otherwise the switchgear is typical Japanese.
Being one of the first supercharger applications in a truck designed for normal duty (the Ford SVT Lightning is purely a specialty model), one might question the reliability of a supercharger in a truck. Nissan says that the SC’s low-boost setup requires no additional maintenance than the regular V-6 version, and the SC has the same 1200-lb payload and 5000-lb tow rating.
Cost: a couple of mpg
We averaged about 16 mpg in a light-load mix of stop-and-go driving and steady speed cruising, with a few spurts of hot-footing along the way. In the stop-and-gos of a daily commute, we could easily see this figure drop below 15. Nissan says that the supercharger lowers fuel economy by ten percent or less, which appears to be true. You'll find gas bills considerably more expensive, though, as the SC requires premium fuel.
With the market currently looking away from compact pickups in favor of sport-utility vehicles or full-size pickups, the Frontier comes with an affordable price. At just over the twenty grand mark, the Desert Runner SC competes head on with Ford’s Range Edge. While the Ranger’s 4.0-liter V-6 is smoother and quieter than the SC’s 3.3-liter, the Frontier offers a manual transmission while the Ranger Edge with the 4.0-liter does not.
The Frontier SC is just one of a new breed of trucks, marketed to people who intend to rarely haul, tow, or do anything “trucky” with their truck. To them, the SC Desert Runner is a sort of fashionable rugged-image sports-car substitute, and it fits the role well.
2001 Nissan Frontier Desert Runner SC 4x2
Price: $20,049 base, $20,589 as tested
Engine: 3.3-liter supercharged V-6, 210 hp
Transmission: Five-speed manual
Wheelbase: 116.1 in
Length: 196.8 in
Width: 71.2 in
Height: 66.4 in
Curb Weight: 3764 lb
EPA (city/hwy): 15/18 mpg
Safety equipment: Dual front airbags, four-wheel anti-lock brakes
Major standard features: Air conditioning, keyless entry, sliding rear window, power windows and mirrors, limited-slip differential, AM/FM/CD sound system
Warranty: Three years/36,000 miles
© 2001 The Car Connection